by Gabriel Wallace
Flipping through the channels on the TV the other day, I came across a program where teachers were being honored for their hard work, dedication, and creativity. I immediately parked the remote on the couch beside me and sat back, ready to bask in the reflected glow of recognition my fellow pedagogues were receiving. The program was very well presented, with a video of each teacher being honored, showing her hard at work among her devoted students, gently nudging them along the paths of enlightenment toward success and personal fulfillment.
That video was followed by a separate video showing each teacher speaking to the camera, making comments about her philosophy of teaching, her approach to discipline, her classrooms strategies, etc. I felt myself swelling with pride in my profession, and I was grateful to the gods of television for throwing some positive light on a much maligned occupation.
But even as I felt these things, I sensed that something important was not being stressed, some crucial element in the complex equation of learning was being glossed over. And then it hit me. Of course, it was the students. Although teaching is always a challenge, even a mediocre teacher can look good if he finds himself in a positive learning environment, with good materials to work with and attentive, motivated students. A good teacher, however, can achieve wonders if he has only the last of these ingredients: good students.
I taught for five years at a private parochial high school on the north side of Chicago. The school was located in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, where maple, oak, and poplar trees lined the streets and people went on garden walks to see who had the prettiest flowers. The school building was a happy blend of form and functionality, with an impressive sculpture at the front entrance and a well-lighted, congenial interior, where walls were painted in cheerful pink, yellow, and blue and hung with impressive student art as well as lovely professional artwork. The five hundred students interacted with a phalanx of teachers, counselors, and administrators who worked hard to see that the needs of each student were being met. Parents served on the board of directors of the school, volunteered to assist in field trips, and of course became intimately involved with the progress of their children. Every morning both the principal and the assistant principal would personally greet the school buses arriving from the suburbs, and they would also see them off at the close of school in the evening.
The materials that I and my colleagues got to work with were all that we could hope for. The textbooks were carefully selected for content, design, and currentness, and they often came with supplementary audiotapes and transparencies. No matter what unit I happened to be teaching, I could always count on finding a film to complement it in the large collection of the film library. And of course, there was the library itself, containing several thousand volumes and employing two full-time librarians. It could easily have served the needs of a much larger school. There was climate control in the large, airy, classrooms, where class size was kept small, and the laboratories and computer facilities were state of the art for that period.